The 2023 AFLW season fixture has finally been released, with players, clubs and fans quickly breaking down the schedule. The fixture drop was delayed to a mere six weeks before the first siren of the season. Due to still-unresolved and seemingly very difficult labour bargaining, the season remains at just 10 games for each team.
There is still no clear roadmap to a longer AFLW season.
This year it means every team only plays about three-fifths of all other teams. This decision creates a degree of fixture imbalance which is unusual even in the compromised world of Australia’s football codes.
More than in any other major Australian football code the schedule could decide who makes finals.
As with the men’s competition, the AFL has sought to make a virtue of the imbalance in the fixture with a weighting policy. While the AFL often fails to bother fully explaining policy and procedure regarding the AFLW, it appears the league largely follows the AFLM’s policy of assigning uneven games by bracketing them teams into thirds.
In the AFLW, rather than double-ups, the key question is which teams you don’t play.
A look at the 2023 season fixture shows that the weakest teams from last year have received softer fixtures and the best teams are largely facing off against each other.. Premiers Melbourne play six of seven other finalists – including the other three preliminary finalists. The Dees also miss out on playing last year’s bottom two teams Port Adelaide and Sydney.
In turn those bottom two teams each skip half last year’s finalists and play a full suite of the other bottom four sides.
True strength vs ladder position
To analyse the full impact of the fixture on how the year might play out, we can look past the ladder alone. HPN has employed a tried-and-true method of correcting win-loss records for “actual” strength called Pythagorean expectations.
Essentially the method looks at how a team scored and conceded, and derives how they should have performed. This can correct for teams who were unlucky in a lot of close games, or who were beaten up in many games while winning narrowly in others.
Here’s the teams whose ladder positions and win records may most belie their true strength. These are the teams who stand to upset the apple cart of fixture weighting based on ladder position, by being treated as stronger or weaker opponents than they may truly be.
Among finalists, both the Pies and Dogs, with substantially inferior ladder percentages to all other finalists, stand out as being closer to 5 or 6 win teams than the 7 wins they really won. That’s still good enough for finals, but probably places them behind North Melbourne, who likely underperformed last year.
Further down the ladder, St Kilda, Essendon and Port Adelaide lurk as more formidable than their win record suggests, and the Giants perhaps as weaker.
It should also be noted that Pythagorean expectations formulas have a really hard time predicting winless teams, meaning the Swans are rated as a 1-win team largely by default. That said, they did have two 4-point losses which might easily have produced that elusive win somewhere.
Winning and losing before we even begin
So how does the fixture weighting look overall?
HPN has rated the difficulty of each draw by comparing the 10 opponents of each team to the strength of the full set of other opponents, which accounts for the difficulty impact of a team not playing themselves. The difference between opponent expected wins and the league as a whole is the handicapping for each team.
There is over 1 expected win in difference between the easiest and hardest fixtures. The Crows’ missing opponents makes their opponent set 0.6 wins more difficult than a fair draw, and the Swans’ opponents 0.7 wins easier. Among last season’s finalists, the Bulldogs come out as having a notably softer draw, their opponent set slightly weaker than the league total.
Bottom side Hawthorn can feel particularly aggrieved, having wound up with the 6th hardest draw on opponent expected wins.
Missing the mark?
Melbourne, the premiers, only face the third hardest draw when accounting for underlying strength last year while North Melbourne who finished eighth then made a preliminary final have the second hardest fixture.
In selecting opponents based on the ladder, it appears that the AFL may have inadvertently missed the mark on handicapping the premiers. Melbourne play a number of teams who we earlier identified as probably overperforming their true strength. Their opponents averaged 5.7 wins last year, but “should” have won about 5.3.
At the other end of the scale, this anomaly is also responsible for Hawthorn’s harder draw, with their opponents looking merely average in actual win-loss terms rather than actively strong. Port and GWS also probably cop a harder fixture than the 2022 (S2) ladder may suggest, while Richmond, Gold Coast and Essendon get a little leg-up.
The more things change
All this assumes teams haven’t changed from last season, which is an obviously untenable assumption given all the list changes that are subjectively expected to weaken the likes of Carlton and Fremantle and boost teams like Essendon and Sydney.
It’s also unknown how much the 2022 newcomers Essendon, Hawthorn, Sydney and Port Adelaide might improve purely as a result of having a full pre-season and more than a few months to build a list and a game plan.
Strength of schedule analysis also ignores home ground advantage factors. Those are myriad, including things like how much the summery Queensland climate may aid teams accustomed to it, and the fact that several Victorian clubs are playing 3 of their 5 away games as effective “derbies” in Victoria, minimising their travel impacts.
All those caveats said, the core fact remains that the AFLW’s fixture is significantly compromised in predictable and unavoidable ways. If the above opponent strength analysis is wind up off-base, it’ll only be because different teams turned out to be strong, distorting the fixture difficulty in alternative, unexpected ways. A much stronger Essendon, for example, would aid both last year’s grand finalists who skip them, while hurting Geelong and Richmond’s top 4 prospects.
While the only fully balanced schedules in Australian men’s or women’s elite football leagues are found in the NRLW and Super W competitions, not playing 40% of your opponents at all is a notably big discrepancy compared to the uneven extra opponents faced in all four men’s leagues and the A-League Women’s competition.
Some AFLW clubs will start 2023 nearly a full expected win behind others, which in the tightness of a ten round race, is a very significant factor.